In the Lap of the Gods 23
Does fate decide the future? Is it all mapped out for us, predestined, or can we influence what comes to pass? Because the next set of circumstances that meshed together marked an important turning point in a number of lives.
A death and
It was too much of a coincidence not to have been planned. The uncanny timing was too fortuitous. An omnipotent force had brought the strands together.
"Thanks for coming Mum," said Steve. "I'll show you round if you like." It was Parents' Day and Lily had taken the time to travel from Auckland to see her precious son. The sporadic letters she had received told her little of the life at Wesley College. Steve knew not to rock the boat. Life was life and you made the best of what you had.
"I see you've got another patch on your jersey," commented Lily. "How did it happen this time? Not a fight I hope?"
Steve pulled at his sleeve, "No Mum. Just lunchtime rugby."
"I don't know why you play that game. You were so good at football before."
"No such thing as football here Mum. Everyone has to play rugby. It's compulsory."
"But you don't even know how to play!"
"Do now. They just put you in a team and expect you to play." He moved towards the dining room so that Lily could see the seating arrangements. Around the corner at a rate of knots came Mrs Dobbins the housekeeper who repaired all the boy's clothes. She was sobbing her eyes out, her rotund body heaving up and down as she tried to control her breathing.
"I hate that man!" she cried. "I do the best I can with what I've got and the hours I'm given. Now he wants me to live on the premises. What about my Stan and the girls?" She said this to no one in particular except that Lily and Steve were the only ones there.
"Are you going to be alright?" Lily asked not sure what to do with this distraught woman. "Is there anywhere you can sit down for a moment?"
Not a minute later around the corner came Mr Tonkins the bursar pulling up short when he saw Steve and his Mother ministering to the distressed Mrs Dobbins.
"Is she alright?" he queried looking somewhat flustered. "Maybe you'd better take the rest of the day off," he suggested knowing full well that this little scene would be amplified out of all proportion by the Head since it was Parents Day. He would rather be rid of the matter before it escalated.
"I'm resigning," Mrs Dobbins blurted out. "I just can't live on the property. It just wouldn't work for me and my family. You've made it impossible for me to carry on. I'll collect my things this afternoon." All this came out in a rush leaving Mr Tonkins with his mouth open and lost for words.
Composing himself quickly however he said, "You have to do what you feel is best Mrs Dobbins. The College cannot afford to pay you travel money everyday from Pukekohe, it's as simple as that."
Mrs Dobbins raised herself barely under control and with her head in the air waltzed past her tormentor giving him a thunderous glare. "I will pick up my equipment tomorrow."
Lily let out an audible sigh, looked at Steve and then at the unfortunate Mr Tonkins. She raised her eyebrows in question "Bit of a problem?"
"Could say that," replied the bursar shaking his head. "Not enough money I'm afraid."
"What sort of job was she doing?" asked Lily merely out of curiosity and genuinely wanting to be friendly.
"Seamstress," he said using the euphemism for repairer of boys' clothes. "It's the living-in part that hard. It's only one bedroom off the side of the main staff residence."
The first of the coincidents was about to fall in place. Here it comes.
"I happen to be a seamstress," said Lily looking at the unfortunate man.
"Yes. I've been a professional machinist for quite some time," she said smiling at a dumbfounded Tonkins.
Tonkins' jaw dropped open in wonderment. He closed it quickly, swallowed a gulp and said, "I don't suppose you would consider a job at the College with board and lodgings?"
"As a matter of fact I would," replied Lily looking at Steve. Who had stood there all this time unable to get his head around what was happening.
A single, good-looking blonde in her mid thirties was going to cause all sorts of angst within the all-male teaching fraternity. Another player had entered the game.
"Copy this week's poem into your English books in your neatest writing," said Bert Bready who was better known to the boys as Baldy. Every Monday the composite Form I and II class would copy a poem from the blackboard into their English books ready to learn by heart by the end of that week. Sunday evening, after compulsory chapel, Bert would spend time writing the poem on the blackboard in preparation for the following day's lesson. He would illustrate the verse to the best of his limited ability to motivate the pupils into illustrating theirs should they choose. Steve actually loved the way Baldy explained the deeper meanings of the poems and what the poet was trying to express. A good deal of this went over the heads of the other pupils but Bert persisted because he loved literature. And the more he persisted the more Steve loved it. It wasn't done to let this be known though! No place for sissies at Wesley.
The downside of the weekly poetry lesson was that by the end of the year every pupil had thirty poems floating around in their heads. As part of their assessment for reports to parents the Head would summon them to his office one at a time and test them on their retention. Each pupil was allowed to choose a poem to recite and then the Head would select one of the thirty at random. Standing close to the right hand side of this large sized man clothed in black robes was enough to intimidate the most hardened boarder. Not many made it out smiling. Most came out ashen and trembling.
McConnell came back into the room with his book under his arm smiling weakly. He took a deep breath and said, "Morgan you're next."
The trip across the playground was about a hundred yards but it would seem like a hundred miles to the frightened boys who had to make their way into the maw of the enemy. Steve rose to his feet book in his hand and gave a daring wink to Baldy. Earlier in the week Bert had sought him out in the playground and whispered conspiratorially in his ear that he would need to learn all the poems in order to satisfy Mr Marshall. Steve knew exactly what he meant and had already had a plan. It wasn't all that hard because he loved the lilt and cadence of the rhymes anyway.
After ascending the steps Steve knocked on the door.
"Enter!" boomed the voice of evil.
Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly, thought Steve.
"Ah... Morgan! How's kitchen duty eh?" Rhetorical question thought Steve. No answer needed. Don't look, just concentrate. You have thirty poems sitting in your head, don't blow it! "Right what have you chosen? The Daffodils I suppose like everyone else? ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud', is it?"
"No Sir, I've chosen Portia's speech from, The Merchant of Venice."
Somewhat taken aback the Head said, "Well get on with it boy! Don't waste my time! No mistakes or you'll pay dearly! You've had all year to practise this! Now get going! What are you waiting for?" This show of pseudo authority was obviously meant to terrorize pupils in an attempt to get them flustered. Steve knew he had the measure of the man and so was able to remain calm throughout the bombastic onslaught.
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy."
The Head could hardly contain his disappointment. The boy had recited it perfectly with all the nuances that the piece required. He could fault nothing and it annoyed him immensely. "My turn to choose one," stated the Head smiling. "Let's see...Opportunity by John James Ingles." This was the hardest poem of them all. A sonnet with hardly any rhyme and difficult to interpret, especially for an eleven-year-old boy. "Come on boy. Not too hard for you is it?" Another rhetorical question, thought Steve. I'll play your silly game, and he launched into it with gusto. Not shouting but giving it all the vigour it demanded.
"Master of human Destinies am I
Fame love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk;
I penetrate deserts and seas remote, and passing by
Hovel and mart and palace - soon or late
I knock unbidden once at every gate!
And so it went with Steve striding along without hesitation.
If sleeping wake - if feasting, rise before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate.
And those who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who doubt or hesitate,
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain and uselessly implore
I answer not, and I return no more!"
Steve finished off with a flourish.
The Head was thunderstruck at what the boy had delivered. No one, not even the seniors had ever given such a performance and yet he couldn't bring himself to show any encouragement. "Yes that was quite good. What does ‘penury' mean?" He asked hoping to catch Steve out.
"Poverty, Sir. Destitution, hardship, needi..."
"Yes, yes, I know. Don't go on!" said the Head in frustration. He made a show of moving papers around on his desk initially unwilling to meet Steve's eyes. "Next I'd like you to do five verses of, The Inscape Rock, for me." He slowly lifted his eyes to engage Steve daring him to question, challenging the unfairness of asking for more than one recital. The battle had commenced.
An hour later an exhausted Steve staggered back to his class where everyone was expecting him to have received a thrashing for antagonising the Head somehow since he'd been gone so long. Steve looked at them all, his face giving away nothing. They waited expectantly. "I had to do them all!" he explained and sank into his chair. The class let out an almighty cheer because they knew that only Steve had managed to learn every poem that year.
"Settle down boys," said Bert trying out his most authoritative voice but not quite managing it. "Give the boy a chance. Did you make any mistakes?" he said coming forward.
"No. I managed them all."
Baldy Bert was astounded.
"How did you do it?" he wanted to know.
"Peeling spuds! I have a lot of spare time in the morning when I'm, peeling spuds." Steve said putting his head down on the desk. "That's when I do it." The class roared its affirmation while Bert could see the irony and looked at Steve in a whole new light.
Where's the next boulder Sisyphus?
Related Tags: education, friends, school, god, experiences, boarding school, code, rules, shanghai, new zealand, immigration, bullying, revenge, new boy, wesley college
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